By Dana Gornall
“Sometimes I wish to God I didn’t know now
The things I didn’t know then
And give me something to believe in”
I didn’t go to Catholic school, but was raised Catholic, so I went to catechism.
For those that have a Catholic background, you may know that catechism is like Catholic school after school—so like Sunday school but on Monday evenings, or Wednesday evenings, or something like that.
I was pretty impressed with Jesus. He held a kind of superhero status to me and Mary was pretty amazing too. She always seemed to be pictured looking so calm and serene, even at the feet of Jesus on the cross.
In first grade, while fidgeting in my chair during an after school catechism, our teacher—an older nun that wore regular clothes in lieu of the traditional black habit, and twiddled her thumbs while she talked—told us not to put our arms through the two wooden slats in the back of the chair.
Turning to face forward and pulling my arm out from the gap between the two slats, I listened intently.
“There once was a young boy in my class about your age,” she told us, twiddling her thumbs and letting her gaze fall on me as she talked, ” and he always stuck his arm between the two slats in the back of his chair. One day, his arm got stuck and we had to call the fire department. Do you know what they did?” she asked. Wide-eyed and shaking our heads we all wanted to know how they helped the boy with his arm stuck between the two wooden slats in the back of the chair.
“Well, I’ll tell you,” she said. “They cut his arm right off! And he never disobeyed his teacher again!”
I was horrified.
For the duration of the class I couldn’t stop thinking about this poor little boy that had his arm sawed right off by the fire department. As soon as class was finished I gathered up my coloring book with pictures of Jesus and the apostles and ran out to meet my mother in the parking lot. As quickly as I could I rattled off the story of the poor little boy and the two wooden slats and how he had his arm cut off.
“That is so silly,” my mother shook her head. “Of course they would cut the chair apart before they would hurt the boy. She was just trying to scare you.”
The rest of the car ride home I sat bewildered that my teacher—a nun of all people—would lie to us to scare us. If I couldn’t believe a nun—a woman of God for that matter—who or what could I believe?
Throughout the years I found myself faced again and again with trying to figure out what was the right way to believe. Sitting in church, I listened to the priest tell the stories of Peter and Paul and watched as he blessed the wine and the wafers.
I watched as my Grandma prayed the rosary and showed me how to follow the tiny glass beads with my fingers, quietly chanting the Hail Mary over and and over and repeating a Glory Be and The Lord’s Prayer in the right places. I stared at the statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by marigolds in her back yard, and watched in awe as she lit a candle in the back of the church and knelt, whispering words of intent and wishes for healing or help or whatever was needed at the time.
Prayer was magical.
The idea that one could have a connection with a supreme higher power and that all we needed to do was to close our eyes and connect, was something special. Every night I lay in bed and rattled off all of the important people in my head that needed prayers.
Please God, keep my grandparents healthy and my parents and even my brother and my friend Jennifer and her parents and… I would list all of the names, carefully not to forget anyone in case I did and they fell into a horrible tragedy.
Yet there were the doubts, the questions and the fears. Was it really meaningful? Were my pleas to spare my family and friends falling into a quiet unheard space that was consumed by only my own thoughts and voices? Was God an illusion just as Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy had been unveiled to be nothing but a tale for a child?
As time went on, I found myself searching.
I stumbled into different belief systems, crossed thresholds of different churches and questioned the meanings behind all of it. I listened as people told me why Catholics had it all wrong. I walked into places of worship that had nothing but empty walls and groups of people raising their voices in song without music (the Bible says nothing about musical instruments). I knelt at the image of the Virgin Mary that supposedly shed a real tear out of her painted on eyes.
I stood outside under a full moon and chanted words about a Goddess and God and drank cheap wine out of a dirty cup. I walked into a storefront in a busy city and removed my shoes to find a group of people reupholstering mediation cushions in red cloth. Taken into a separate room, they explained to me how to meditate: eyes open, fixed on a spot, count slowly from one to ten and then back again.
I stared at my socks, counting and then realizing that they were two different shades of black.
I sat in savasana after yoga, trying to clear my mind and not think about the fact that my feet were cold and that someone was snoring next to me. I crouched low, with my legs spread wide and shook my head back and forth, breathing in and then out and chanting Wahe Guru while forcing air out of my nose and trying to not blow snot out of it at the same time.
What was the point of all this?
Was it to bring me closer to God? Was it to be enlightened, and what did it mean to be enlightened anyway? What was I looking for? Maybe there was no point at all.
Yet in the silent moments, when I find my back pressed up against a cold wall and I am sitting on the floor—I realize that I am just looking for something to believe.
Something that will give me a solid ground to land on when I’ve been turned upside down over and over so many times that I have lost which way is up and which way is down. A bright star to look toward when I think of the loved ones that have passed on and I miss everything about them—their eyes, their touch their smell.
A deity to pray to when I have found myself so consumed by pain (whether it be physical or mental or emotional) that the only words I can utter, the only sound I can make is to a God I want so desperately to believe in.
Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the gray spaces.
Maybe these stories and thoughts and actions all hold a little bit of lies and a little bit of truth. Maybe when it all gets spun into circles and mixed together into one big blurry image, the real God will finally stand up?
I don’t really know.
I just know that there have been times I have seen a glint of deity shining back at me in such a way that I almost completely miss it. The look in my son’s eyes when we first locked gazes on the night he was born held that light.
The dark starry expanse of sky with a full moon hitched up overhead on a hot summer night, gives way to the possibility that maybe there are more questions that are unanswered.
And mostly, I just know that sometimes in this great big world, I just want something to believe in.
“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
~ Joseph Campbell